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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: right-wing politics


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “bigots,” “extremists”)

Hillary Clinton took an old adjective and refashioned it as a noun in her effort to smoke out some of Trump’s less savory supporters — mainly white or male supremacists of one kind or another. The word (more memorable as the full phrase, “basket of deplorables”) and the tactic backfired; Hillary was pilloried for insulting upright middle Americans. The world, liberal media included, promptly forgot the rest of her statement, in which she took pains to distinguish the least respectable of Trump’s supporters from those same upright middle Americans:

“that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

It didn’t do any good, and “deplorables” quickly became emblematic of a campaign rife with missteps.

Last week, I referred to a few of the new expressions Bill Clinton’s administration gave us. Some of the phrases most closely associated with him — “It’s the economy, stupid” or “I feel your pain” — never have made it into everyday language. They remain Clinton’s property somehow, and we use them mainly with reference, ironic or otherwise, to the man himself. It is quite possible that “deplorables” will suffer the same fate: a word everyone grasps but which will never shake free of its origin.


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “crybaby,” “weakling,” “snotnose kid”)

I don’t recall hearing this term before the election, but it has been making the right-wing rounds for several years — the earliest use I found came from 2011 — often in the expanded form “special snowflake” or “God’s special little snowflake.” Trump’s victory gave gleeful right-wing commentators ample opportunity to advise “snowflakes” to stop whining and admit Trump won. (Bear in mind that many of these commentators still don’t accept the outcome of the Civil War.) I’m no Trump supporter, but I too found a lot of the post-election hyperventilating tiresome. For the first few weeks, we saw a lot of cocooned, inexperienced larvae throwing tantrums ’cause Trump was so darn mean. By my recollection, most of that dissipated by the end of the year, and the word “snowflake” declined in frequency — I haven’t heard it nearly so much in 2017. Maybe it will sink back into relative obscurity. But I think “snowflake” has a much better chance of sticking in everyday language than “deplorables.” It is less closely associated with Trump than “deplorables” is with Clinton, so it’s less likely to be shunted off into the ghetto of expressions we recognize but don’t use outside certain narrow contexts. More decisively, the gusto with which some Trump partisans used “snowflake” suggests that they will continue to reach for it at every opportunity.

It’s an effective insult because it attacks from three different directions. The most obvious, perhaps, is the fragility of the snowflake, so easily dissolved and destroyed. Or if it doesn’t melt, it is entirely subsumed into an inglorious icy mass in which no single flake can be distinguished from the others. Thus, the snowflake is both frail and conformist. Another defining trait of snowflakes is that they are unique, so the term takes a swipe at the self-esteem builders who emphasize the uniqueness (which they equate with wonderfulness) of each child. Maybe it’s not mandatory any more, but “snowflake” still seems to refer most readily to the young and whiny.

There were two earlier usages of “snowflake” that may have had some influence: Donald Rumsfeld’s unofficial memos written as Secretary of Defense, which he recalled “grew in number from mere flurries to a veritable blizzard,” were called “snowflakes.” The practice of implanting “unused” (that is, created for purposes of in vitro fertilization but ultimately not needed) frozen embryos, allowing infertile women to bear children, gave rise to the term “snowflake babies.” While Rumsfeld’s memos were so called because of their sheer volume (and perhaps because they were printed on white paper), and “snowflake babies” probably had mainly to do with the fact that the embryos were frozen, in the latter case there may also have been an appeal to the fragile, precious nature of the single snowflake. Now the expression has taken a derisive turn from which it may never recover.

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if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “leave well enough alone,” “don’t rock the boat,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

So is this phrase proverbial or not? It sure sounds it, and there’s no shortage of people ready to claim it as a fine old example of down-home southern wisdom. (One early citation claimed it came from descendants of Swedes in Minnesota, also pretty down-home.) I’m not saying it isn’t, but there are precious few examples of it in print before 1977, when it emerged from the mouth of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s budget director, and quickly became a bromide. (Here‘s a good history of the phrase.) Sure, Lance probably was not the first person to utter it, and if you scroll down enough discussion boards you can find folks who remember hearing it as far back as the fifties, and if you press them, they will brandish a newspaper clipping from oh, say, 1976, that den of antiquity. Why can’t it just be a new expression, people? Why can’t we just give Bert Lance the credit? Well, it sounds proverbial — a complete sentence, words of one syllable, down-to-earth advice about everyday nuisances that achieves a wider scope, and that strategic “ain’t,” which assures us of the speaker’s sincerity. I’ve covered other instant proverbs in this vein: no pain, no gain; no harm, no foul; pick your battles; be careful out there; listen to your body, think outside the box.

The expression counsels restraint and even a bit of humility (in embarrassingly short supply these days), but it is also a great hymn to inertia; critics have a point when they warn against complacency. There are several elaborations on the phrase, many of which have to do with seeing problems coming and correcting them before they get out of hand. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will come back to haunt you if you ignore dangers on the horizon. The expression is effective in debate because the only way to top it is with a quick and convincing reply: “It IS broke, and here’s why.” We want to believe it’s true; in its short(?) life the phrase has risen to the level almost of an axiom, or a law of nature. We prefer to think of such rules to live by as the result of centuries of refinement, because they seem less debatable that way — part of the appeal of an anonymous or group pedigree.

Thanks to Lance, this particular adage has generally been considered a member of the sub-species dixieii (I heard it first from my Tarheel mother, who used it with relish). Meddlers who want to change things that are working perfectly fine have assorted names in the South, all of them bad: carpetbaggers, busybodies, reformers (which, if you back off the first syllable a bit can sound a lot like “foreigners”), progressives. In the South as elsewhere, politicians cozy up to local prejudices with dog whistles, double meanings, and high-flown rhetoric — because they work — and it’s my guess that southerners are more vulnerable to such things per capita than people from the rest of the country, but not a lot. Of course, very few Americans of any region welcome uninvited visitors who aim to mess with their way of life.

Both Reagan and Bush used the phrase around the time of the 1980 election, lending it a right-wing flavor that to my ear, at least, it still has (cf. nothing-burger, truly needy, junk science, zero tolerance). It is indeed conservative wisdom — a direct descendant of the Hippocratic Oath, which ought be enough of a pedigree for anyone. Conservatives do have a reputation for sitting on the status quo, not to be confused with modern-day right-wingers ripping society apart to take us back to the idyllic (for whom?) eighteenth century, or fourteenth, or whatever. But it suits today’s right-wingers to clothe themselves in conservative garb on occasion, and this expression is one of many that rings the right changes with their loyal voters.

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(1980’s | journalese (politics) | “much ado about nothing,” “tempest in a teapot,” “big fat zero,” “empty suit”)

Chalk up one more for the Reagan administration, by far the most prolific presidential source of new vocabulary since Kennedy or possibly FDR. Actually, Reagan’s EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, made it famous in 1984, by which time she was his former EPA administrator, having resigned rather than turn over subpoenaed documents to Congressional committees. She used “nothing-burger” to describe the next post to which she had been nominated: head of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. (Antiquarians like myself will observe that it happened the same year as the “Where’s the beef” ad campaign.) I must add that Google Books yielded one instance before Burford: none other than Helen Gurley Brown in Sex and the Office (1964), who tossed it off in a discussion of dressing for success (i.e., attracting a man) at work. I quote: “Wearing one great pin four days in a row is better than changing to nothing-burger clinkers.” An adjective, it’s true, but easily turned into a noun. Apparently gossip columnist Louella Parsons used the expression even earlier, though my sources are all second-hand.

The point of “nothing-burger” is that it denotes a statement, event, or (sometimes) person that promises more than it delivers, or doesn’t live up to its hype. Or maybe a small solution to a big problem. (Good exposition here.) By now the term has broadened so that it denotes any non-entity, regardless of advance publicity. It’s always an insult, a quick dismissal of a policy statement, an opponent’s sally, or even sworn testimony. Therefore, it may be used defensively, as a means of suggesting that the very telling blow one has just absorbed had absolutely no effect. To this day, it is used overwhelmingly by politicians and political commentators, though one stumbles across it now and then in movie reviews or sportswriting.

The use of “burger” as a suffix is not all that widespread, despite America’s obsession with the hamburger and its many variants. Lighter’s slang dictionary lists only two examples (of course, that was over twenty years ago), and the only one I could think of was “slutburger,” which was pressed into service to discuss salacious commercials for the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr., although it was the name of an underground comic book drawn by Rip Off Press regular Mary Fleener before that. Even now, most “-burger” words are strictly food-related.

Though it’s used now by politicians of all persuasions, “nothing-burger” has always been more prominent among right-wingers, befitting its first popularizer. Burford was an early right-wing martyr, head of an agency whose mission she opposed, like so many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. She sold simple obstruction of justice — stonewalling the people’s representatives for the sake of a profoundly dubious assertion of executive privilege — as principled resistance to intrusive, pettifogging gummint bureaucracy. Of course, she had a willing audience, and the same third of the country that cheered her on has just put Trump in the White House. He has repaid them by placing her son on the supreme bench. We may well wonder how many of her notions about the law and the Constitution he has absorbed.

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dog whistle

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “coded (signals),” “speaking to people in their own language,” “telling people what they want to hear”)

In its figurative political sense, “dog whistle” first began to turn up in quantity around 2000, primarily in the Australian press. When used down there, it was generally identified as an American expression. I’m not saying they were wrong — though in 2005, William Safire quoted an Australian reporter suggesting that the phrase may have originated in Australia after all — but LexisNexis coughs up precious few examples in America, or anywhere else, before 1995. None, really; the Washington Post defined the “dog whistle effect,” a pollster’s term, in 1988: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” (I’m not sure if this remains a technical term in polling.) In 1995, a House Republican spake thus of Newt Gingrich: “When Newt and the others would talk about what was possible, it was like a dog whistle. Some people heard it and some people didn’t. If you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” And that, of course, is the essence of the dog whistle. One group gets it full force and the others are blissfully unaware of the hidden message, giving the in group the added pleasure of putting one over on the uninitiated. If you want to express covert solidarity, use words and phrases that have special meaning for the target, but not for others. In fact, the phrase didn’t blossom in the U.S. until shortly after George W. Bush took office; he wooed evangelicals with snatches from hymns or Bible verses intended to elude listeners not versed in Christian vocabulary. Bush used religious rhetoric in much more open ways, but he also found subtler means to reassure that reliable chunk of his base. Dog whistles, in Australia as in the U.S., get more of a workout from politicians on the right — wonder why that is — so it’s telling that the concept was associated early on with Gingrich and his merry men.

The New York Times, not normally an outlier when it comes to contemporary usage, nevertheless defined “dog-whistle politics” thus in 2005: “handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle,” ignoring the point of the metaphor but not exactly inaccurate, either. In the more regulation sense outlined above, the phrase has always been more common as an adjective, most often modifying “politics,” but it is also available as a noun. While it is possible to use it in other contexts, it is a political term par excellence. It captures one of the many kinds of duplicity required of politicians, though it’s more roundabout than the usual “I know an easy way to make everything better, and it won’t cost you a penny.”

In case anyone is wondering if the presidential election may have prompted this week’s musings, maybe you’re right. But for the most part, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles, and that was one of the most extraordinary features of his campaign. Hillary did use dog whistles to talk to investment bankers, but she certainly made no effort to convince coal miners that she had a deep connection with them. It’s not entirely true that Trump dispensed with dog whistles, but coyness is not one of his attributes — which doesn’t mean he’s honest — and he did best when he trumpeted the yearnings and grievances of the white right. If the dog whistle loses its raison d’être in our politics, Trump will get the credit — or blame. Dog whistles are dishonorable, but they are also an acknowledgment of an accepted range of political discourse that does not permit slander, baseless accusations, or entirely fabricated “facts” to become the stuff of campaigns. When Trump wanted to fire up his base, he didn’t bother with the subliminal. And it worked better than anything else Republican presidential candidates have tried lately. Maybe all it proves is that many Republican voters don’t like indirect messages because they’re too dumb to interpret them. Give ’em a little rhetorical red meat, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Thanks as always to lovely Liz from Queens, who has contributed countless expressions to the blog and continues to do so. My cup runneth over.

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